It is estimated that about 1.2 million people in New York City have outstanding arrest warrants. While this number is probably higher than in most cities, the problem of outstanding warrants is common. Most are related to minor infractions like unpaid parking tickets, so enforcing them is a rather low priority for police departments most of the time.
Unfortunately, outstanding warrants may now be a tool to help police officers conduct illegal searches of suspects. This is due to a distressing ruling issued in late June by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Our civil liberties include rights such as protection against unreasonable search and seizure. When criminal evidence is gathered in violation of our civil rights (and therefore considered illegally obtained), that evidence cannot be used against us. This is commonly referred to as the exclusionary rule.
But in a very controversial ruling, the Supreme Court recently held that police officers can search a suspect if they discover that the suspect has an outstanding arrest warrant. This is true even if the officer detained a suspect illegally – without reasonable suspicion that the person had been or was about to be engaged in illegal activity.
This ruling could lead to some very serious problems, as noted in the impassioned dissent of Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She said: “The court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights. This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants — even if you are doing nothing wrong.”
It is unclear exactly how this decision will impact the practices of law enforcement. But in a city where “stop and frisk” was a longstanding policy and practice, this ruling could easily lead to harassment of law-abiding citizens and further tension between the NYPD and the public.